Tea, Consent, and Commercial Sex

You may have heard about the video which explains sexual consent by making an analogy with tea:

I like the use of analogies and metaphors to get a point across. I also enjoy tea better than the average American, some acquaintances saying my love of tea could rival that of the British and Irish. With that in mind,…

Let’s say that someone has heard about my knowledge and skill regarding tea, and would not only like me to brew and serve some tea for them, but would be willing to pay me for it. I give it a moment’s thought, and agree. The table is set, the tea is brewed and served with suitable edibles, the whole experience enjoyed by my guest, who pays the agreed-upon remuneration plus a gratuity.

Not bad.

So, why not make this a business? I spread the word about my willingness to make and serve tea to paying customers, from word-of-mouth to the World Wide Web, and build a customer base. I set some limits on what I will and won’t do, establish a schedule of fees for different levels of service, and build a base of regular and occasional clientele. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes it’s tedious or even annoying – but so long as no one uses force or deceit to get me to make them tea, or doesn’t pay the agreed-upon fee, I’m good.

Now imagine that I run into people who have a problem with this. Some argue that, to “protect” me and/or my clients, I need to be licensed – not the same kind of licensure that a restaurant or catering company goes through, but special licensing through the police, along with excessive and intrusive health checks, severe limits on advertising and location, and constant political and social scrutiny. Others would argue that, while there’s nothing wrong with serving tea for free, as soon as you exchange it for money, some nefarious force robs tea-service-sellers of consent, and all tea-service-buyers are selfish and abusive, not to mention the people who run those filthy teahouses, so let’s “rescue” the poor tea-service-sellers and punish those nasty buyers and bosses by making it a crime to pay for tea service, or living off the avails of tea-service-selling, because you should only consent to making or having tea when you truly love the other person.

What about if a tea-service-seller argues they’re not being forced, they don’t hate what they do, the majority of their clients are not abusive assholes, and they don’t need the police or anyone else interfering in their business? Well, the ones who argue that all tea-service-selling is a form of modern-day slavery dismissively argue that those poor sellers are “not representative” and deluded by “false consciousness,” so no one should listen to them. The stigmatizing narrative of the “anti-sellers” even begins to negatively affect the sellers’ community, yet still they persist and protest, based on the basic premise that the only people who get to decide who has tea with whom, and under what terms, are the people themselves.

Money is not magic. It doesn’t have any mysterious power to erode or negate consent. And if it’s possible to give and receive something consensually, then it’s also possible to buy and sell it consensually.

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Seattle Prosecutor Val Richey’s Warped Idea of Consent

The basic argument for decriminalizing sex work is rooted in the basic premise that government should not interfere in the private interactions of consenting adults. Ironically, prohibitionists like King County prosecutor Val Richey would claim to agree. The problem, they assert, is that money somehow erases consent.

“What you have is someone paying this person essentially to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes,'” Richey recently told the Seattle Times. Interviewed about the massive bust in that city last year, he insists that, because the women were “doing it for the money” and not “as a leisure activity,” they must have been coerced.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, in her recent blog post for Reason magazine, summed it up with a priceless gem of a quote:

By that logic, anyone who wouldn’t perform their job without remuneration is a victim of labor trafficking!

The simplest definition of consent is “voluntary agreement or permission” – one person wishes to engage in an activity with another, and the second person willingly agrees and permits. This also implies that the person being asked has the option to refuse. Most importantly, the principle of consent recognizes that each of us places various conditions on whether or when we agree to a given action.

Let me give some examples based on my love and knowledge of tea (and yes, the Youtube “Tea and Consent” video springs to mind). I will gladly accept a cup of tea from a friend, but not without certain conditions – no milk (given my dairy allergy), little if any sugar, and definitely not any from the Charleston Tea Plantation (which, quite frankly, is indistinguishable from having boiled three year old balls of lint). I will also gladly share stories and opinions about tea in casual conversation. But let’s say that someone asks me to taste the results of their tea-blending experiments, or to make a special blend and serve it at a special event, or to write a paper or deliver a talk. Yes, I’d enjoy doing so, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to abrogate my right to be compensated for such work. My requiring payment for the time and effort required says nothing about whether I would enjoy doing so. It is a condition to my agreeing to do so, just as much as any other condition I might impose.

The same holds true with sex work. Payment does not negate consent; it is a condition of consent, just like other limits that sex workers place on their participation. As Liz Brown rightly points out, to argue that being paid automatically equals being forced is to regard all paid labor as a form of slavery. Granted, people frequently take jobs they would rather not do. But limited choice is not the same as having no choices at all – and to tell those who enter sex work that you will limit their choices further “for their own good” is both paternalistic and hypocritical.

This is also the case with sex work clients. Their choices are often framed by circumstances beyond their control, from physical or psychological disability, to the sudden loss of an intimate relationship. They establish certain conditions, and must abide by the conditions of prospective providers. To reduce the interaction simply to money, and reduce money further into an instrument of coercion, is to ignore the full context in which client-provider interactions take place.

Money is not the instrument of coercion here. It is the archaic and inhumane laws against consenting adults agreeing to their own conditions for sexual expression. It is the enforcement of these laws which hamstring the ability of sex workers to assure their safety through screening and other measures, and to seek recourse whenever consent is violated. It is the paternalistic ideology of prohibitionism that is to blame for unduly limiting the choices available to both clients and providers. Whenever government shackles the power of individuals to consent with one another, it is tyranny.

Five Suggestions for Improving Review Boards

Review board are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they provide a convenient means for sex workers and clients to connect and negotiate. The down side, however, is that they are clearly structured to the advantage of certain clients – self-described “hobbyists” – and to the distinct disadvantage of service providers. Having read the complaints that sex workers post on their own blogs and zines, and compared this to how similar sites work in other industries (e.g., restaurants), I’ve decided to offer some recommendations on how review boards could do a better job for everyone. These are not gospel, and I certainly welcome comments from both providers and clients. I just hope these ideas spark some constructive conversation:

  1. Scoring should be based on quality, not quantity – One of the worst practices on sites like The Erotic Review is scoring providers based on what particular acts they are willing to do. Sex workers rightly complain that this puts pressure on them to engage in practices that they may not be entirely comfortable doing, especially with relatively new clients. That also violates a basic tenet for evaluating any provider in any industry: It’s not about how many things you do, but how well you do them. Many escorts who critique this system point out that theirs is a highly personalized service that is well-nigh impossible to rate by a numerical system. I’d therefore recommend that any “scoring” system depend on a few basics, such as prompt arrival for outcalls, a clean and comfortable incall, the provider’s demeanor, and the client’s impression of the experience. Yes, these are subjective, but the same qualitative approach holds true for any industry.
  2. Vet written reviews before posting – Two major problems that sex workers have in this area are fake reviews and “blow-by-blow” accounts of every aspect of a session. The first goes against the very reason that review boards are supposed to exist; the second is unnecessary, and even dangerous given that law enforcement tends to snoop on these sites to find easy ways to meet their arrest quotas. It would therefore make sense for all written reviews to be moderated, checked for veracity, and edited to remove excessive detail. Even better, board administrators could offer guidelines for writing reviews, based on input from sex workers.
  3. Set up a better system for handling complaints – This is one problem area for both providers and clients, who express frustration that complaints are either not listened to or are met with overly defensive responses, even getting people banned from a board just for trying to get a problem rectified. Given that so many boards are run by a single proprietor, it’s no wonder this keeps cropping up. A sole proprietor sees their operation as “their baby”, and may resent having anyone tell them how to do things better. Unfortunately, the longer you run any business in this manner, the better the odds that you’ll run it into the ground. I’d strongly recommend that board administrators retain at least one person to serve as an arbiter or ombudsperson for fielding complaints. When a complaint involves a problem with board administration, apologize and work to solve the problem. When it involves a dispute between two or more board participants, listen to all sides and help them reach a fair resolution. And makes sure to post an easy-to-understand guide for filing complaints and what board participants may expect.
  4. Make clear that certain things will get you kicked out … and mean it! – While many complaints require a personalized approach to resolve, certain behaviors are clearly off-limits, and should be stated as such, and any penalty attached to it enforced whenever a violating occurs. So if you make it clear that threatening another board participant will get you banned, and someone breaks that rule, ban them. If attempting to post a fake review gets you suspended for the first offense and banned after the second, follow through whenever it happens. Of course, this doesn’t mean your ombudsperson should take any allegation at face value; they still need to make sure the complaint itself is valid. But once you’ve determined that someone did violate a “hard-and-fast” rule, enforce the rule. And yes, I’d add making false complaints among them.
  5. Providers need a voice in the decision-making process – Yes, I saved this for last because I’m well aware that the last item on the list is often the most remembered. Let’s face it, review boards are not just a benefit for clients of escorts and other service providers. They are a significant benefit for providers, even with the flaws I’ve highlighted here. If review boards are going to serve their participants better, then all participants need to have a voice within their administration, and not just certain clients. At a minimum, at least one current or former provider should be on the management team of any such enterprise, and their input should be required when proposing and deciding on any policies for the board’s operation.

There you have it, folks. Kick these ideas around, ask questions, offer any critiques you may have. Hopefully, such discussions will bear fruit, either from existing boards changing how they operate, or new alternatives springing up.